Racheal Nachula could open a school on how to switch between two sporting disciplines, and still be top of the class.
The Zambian former sprinter-turned-footballer is not unique in this transition. The great Usain Bolt is another athlete who hung up his spikes and swapped them for football boots. But his transition wasn’t as successful as Nachula’s switch. He played only a few matches before calling time on his short-lived football career.
Mozambique’s Maria Mutola also made the transition from athletics to football, going on to play for Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies as well as to captain her country’s senior women’s national team.
After his first retirement from basketball in 1993, Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball. He played in the Minor Baseball League before returning to his first love, basketball. For MJ, it was as though he had never left.
Nachula is one of the few who managed to do well in two different sporting codes. The multitalented 29-year-old is widely known as a track athlete in the 400m and 800m events, but that’s not where her sporting journey began. Nachula got bitten by the football bug in her late teens. She started playing the sport when she was 17 years old, for Barclays in Lusaka in 2003.
Her pace was a problem for defenders in her early days as a footballer. This is what attracted Hanson Mushili, an athletics coach, to the teenager from a family of 11 siblings. He convinced her that her pace would bring her success on the track.
“It didn’t take him a long time to convince me to try athletics,” she says. “He approached me on a Wednesday and on Thursday I decided to join the Green Buffaloes Athletics Club.”
A match made in athletic heaven
What makes Mushili and Nachula’s partnership special was that the pair only had two training sessions together before she took to the track for her first competitive race.
“After he told me that I can do well in running, I had a feeling that he was right and I told him that I would go to training the next day. It all went well,” says Nachula.
Her first track meet was the All Comers athletics competition where, remarkably, she came second in the 200m behind Carol Mokola. Nachula’s athletics career saw her representing Zambia in the World Junior Championships, World Athletics Championships, Junior Commonwealth Games, All-Africa Games and the Olympics.
Her talent on the track took her to one of South Africa’s top sports institutions, the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre, through an International Olympic Committee scholarship. That’s where she got to fine-tune her raw talent. Tuks has produced a number of talented athletes in different sporting codes, including track and field, rowing, football and netball. Caster Semenya spent her early tertiary years at the institution in South Africa’s capital of Tshwane. Sprinter Akani Simbine, netball player Lenize Potgieter and long and triple jumper Khotso Mokoena also attended the institution.
Individual sports can be a bit more difficult to cope with than team sports because athletes have only themselves to rely on when the chips are down.
“We don’t have too many competitions in the year. We normally have four or five events in a year. It’s quite difficult for one to qualify for the World Champs, Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games. It’s very hard. It takes my own effort [financially] to do that. After I had participated in all the competitions, then I said, okay, I’m done with athletics. Let me try to go back to football,” she says.
IAAF’s testerone rules
She can count herself lucky that during her track career the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) wasn’t pushing the draconian rules that allow them to tamper with women’s testosterone levels if they deem them too high. Semenya has been on the receiving end of those rules, barring her from continuing her dominance in the 800m.
As a track athlete, Nachula and Semenya became friends when they met in 2008 at the Junior Commonwealth Games in India. This was just a year before Semenya was subjected to gender testing after she won gold at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany.
“She has been through a lot,” says Nachula. “I am surprised that it has come back again. I don’t think they are being fair to her. They are just trying to disturb her mind and they have to let her be. She must continue participating.”
Although her athletics career spanned less than a decade, Nachula is satisfied with having taken part in all the global athletics competitions and ready to go back to football to try and achieve more there. She says she would pick football over track if she was forced to choose between the two, now.
The Copper Queens have been growing in recent years and are becoming one of the most competitive teams in Southern Africa. During the 2017 Cosafa Women’s Championship in Zimbabwe, they gave Banyana Banyana a scare in the semifinal. Zambia led Banyanya 3-0 in a thrilling encounter, only for Desiree Ellis’ side to come back in the last minute through a Leandra Smeda goal and Rhoda Mulaudzi’s brace to make it 3-3. The Copper Queens were eliminated through penalties.
They continued this feat in the 2019 edition of the competition, leaving with a silver medal after losing to Banyana in the final. Nachula was the tournament’s top scorer with 11 goals.
Despite her exploits, she was accused of missing a penalty on purpose in their last group match against Botswana. Football Association of Malawi president Walter Nyamilandu suggested that Nachula shot wide so that the Copper Queens wouldn’t face Malawi in the semis. Malawi missed being the second-best team and ended up not qualifying for the semis.
“I apologised to my teammates. I don’t know what happened,” she says.
CAF moves in the right direction
Nachula has been part of that evolving Zambian team, even though she missed the CAF Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) last year. They are close to being recognised as one of the best teams on the continent, she says.
The increase in the number of teams in the Fifa Women’s World Cup tournament has prompted the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to increase the number of teams from eight to 12 in the Women’s Afcon. It boggles Nachula’s mind as to why it took so long for the CAF to do this.
“We have 55 countries in Africa. How can they have only eight teams taking part in the Africa Cup? They were not being fair. But I think they have seen that and they decided to increase the numbers.”
Zambia is one of the few countries on the continent that has a women’s football league. The government uses football and other sports to try and eliminate the social ills that cripple young women and girls. The association is also investing more in their national teams.
“It’s becoming better because sometime back, we were not recognised as women footballers,” she says. “A lot of things have changed, also in terms of sponsorship. The Football Association of Zambia is trying by all means to help us because there’s an issue of early marriages for girls and teen pregnancy. Sports associations and federations are trying to cut all of that.”
Although women’s football is supported in Zambia, the scales are not yet balanced. Men’s football still receives more attention and sponsorship. This is not an isolated case in Africa or even Southern Africa. Banyana Banyana is one such team and Zimbabwe had to boycott its second-leg Olympic qualifier over unpaid fees from the Cosafa Women’s Championship.
“You cannot compare it to the way the men are sponsored, but we all play the same football. I would love it if they [the football association] can treat us the same as the men, and give us what the men are getting. That’s what I would love,” says Nachula.